A city washed in sadness
Port Said is still in mourning three weeks after the deaths of 74 Al-Ahli fans at a football match in the city, writes Osama Kamal
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Citizens of Port Said city took to the streets to mourn the youngAl-Ahli fans who died in the stadium
No one could ever have dreamed that the day would come when Port Said, a city that has fought off invaders more than once, would stand accused of killing football fans in cold blood, when fans of its local team Al-Masri beat up fans of the visiting team Al-Ahli. The crime lasted perhaps only half an hour or so, or even less, as unidentified assailants attacked Al-Ahli fans, known as "Ultras", with sticks and knives at a match three weeks ago. Some Al-Ahli fans were even thrown to the ground from the top of the city's stadium.
The incident has been blamed on a provocative banner unfurled briefly during the match that mocked Port Said residents by calling them bala-sellers, or the sellers of old clothes. However, for most there is more than just an insulting banner behind the tragedy. One fan, Khaled Salem, who attended the match, said that he blamed the security forces for what happened.
"I have never seen lassitude on that scale at any other match I have attended among the security forces," Salem said. "It was as if the stage was being set for a crime. The spectators were not searched, unlike at previous matches where spectators were made to take off their shoes and even socks at the gates. Before going into the stadium, I saw faces that I have never seen before, and there was clear contempt being shown for the police forces."
"When security chief Essam Samak passed in front of the stands to check his staff, the spectators jeered, letting him know that they did not fear him. I left the stadium at the end of the match, and I noticed that most of the people who ran onto the pitch had been sitting in the western side of the stadium and were allowed onto the pitch without opposition from the police. I recall a similar incident happening at the Al-Ahli match with Al-Mahalla in late December, but the chief of security in Al-Mahalla, Mustafa Baz, intervened in time and saved many lives."
Today, black flags have been hung in the streets of Port Said to mourn those who died in the tragedy. Many citizens of Port Said feel that they are now outcasts and are trying to clear their names. One resident of Port Said, Ali El-Alfi, a local singer, said that he believed the carnage had been organised in an attempt to divide the nation.
"The tragedy that took place in the Port Said stadium is part of an attempt to divide the nation, pitting one religion against another, one political current against another, and one city against another. I am saddened that my city, Port Said, is being blamed for what happened. I live in Cairo and travel frequently back and forth to Port Said. I am now met by suspicious glances wherever I go," he said.
Sayed Zard, director of the Mosawah Centre for Human Rights in Port Said, said that the tragedy had followed a now-familiar trajectory. Like the church bombing in Alexandria just over a year ago, the Port Said crime had been carefully planned, he claimed. "This was the doing of trained professionals, not football fans. Those who today are ruling Egypt intend to try to hold onto power until their last breath, and they will try to maintain their privileges even after leaving power," he said.
Ahmed Nabil, a political activist and chief investigator at the Suez Canal Organisation, also thinks that the stadium incident was a crime. The Port Said Ultras, like the Al-Ahli fans, had fought side by side on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo, he said, where they acted to protect each other. "Port Said has been the scene of a well-planned crime that could have been committed anywhere else as well. The inhabitants of Port Said are eager to find the real culprits, and they have already found clues that will lead us to the real criminals."
Al-Masri, Port Said's top football team, was established in 1920 and was the first Egyptian sports club in a town that already had several Italian, Greek, and Maltese clubs. Al-Masri first took part in the Egyptian Cup in 1921, and it joined the league competition in 1948.
Port Said fans eagerly await their team's matches with the country's two most-popular clubs, Al-Ahli and Zamalek. Winning a game against Al-Ahli is something that usually generates joy, not bloodshed.
Since the stadium tragedy the streets of Port Said have been practically empty, with the commercial districts of Al-Gomhuriya, Tarh Al-Bahr and Mohamed Ali being almost deserted. In the popular areas of Al-Tegari, Al-Homeidi and Al-Rawda streets, a sense of despair prevails. Now that visitors no longer come, the markets have been virtually abandoned.
In the Al-Bazar Market, one of the oldest in the city, shipping company owner Hamad Abu Zeid said that Port Said was living under a state of siege. "Since the match, we have experienced a blockade, as if we were living in the Gaza Strip," he said. "All relations with other governorates have been severed, and my business has come to a halt because our drivers are afraid of being attacked by Al-Ahli fans, or by the families of the victims. Everyone blames Port Said for what happened, forgetting that the entire country is suffering from a lack of security."
At the Abu Tariya caf≥©, one Al-Ahli fan, 19-year-old Mohamed Tira, still cannot believe what happened. "This was not about football fanaticism. This was a moral tragedy that has swept the entire country. Everyone is part of it," he said. "Yesterday, I went to Cairo and was shocked to see the bus driver switch the sign from Port Said-Cairo to another saying Alexandria-Cairo, as if we were outlaws in Port Said."
Some inhabitants still suffer from post-traumatic symptoms. Heba Hussein, a graduate of the Suez Canal University, said that she had been having trouble sleeping since the match. "I haven't been able to sleep since then," she said. "The faces of the martyrs haunt me at every waking moment, especially the face of Anas Mohieddin, who was only 14 years old. I want to see the ultra associations disbanded, as they have become a breeding ground for fanaticism."
Three notables in Port Said are today suspected of involvement in the carnage. One is Mahmoud El-Minyawi, a former member of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and deputy-director of Telecom Egypt. Another is El-Husseini Abu Qamar, a former NDP parliamentarian who was accused during the 25 January Revolution of hiring men to stir up trouble in Port Said and is now suspected of having repeated the deed. The third is Gamal Omar, owner of the Al-Arousa store and a successful local businessman. During recent protests in the city, an angry mob torched his store.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity, one member of the Al-Masri Ultras said that he was worried that the security forces would come after him. He recounted his side of the story: "before the match, the Ultras met with the head of the Al-Masri club and captain Hossam Hassan, the coach of the team. Both asked us to support the team until the end of the match and not to harass the Al-Ahli team or its fans. We gave them our word that we would do as they asked."
However, video footage taken after the match ended and broadcast on sports channels show assailants forcing Al-Ahli fans to take off their shirts, the highest form of insult among the ultra groups. The Al-Masri Ultras member the Weekly spoke to claimed that the faces shown on the videos were not those of Al-Masri Ultras. Port Said has three groups of fans, he said, the Masrawi Ultras, the Green Devils and the Super Greens. None of the videoed assailants were wearing the shirts of the three groups, he said, blaming the sports channels for trying to "frame" the Ultras. "None of the channels has offered to speak to us, or to give us the chance to defend ourselves," he said.
Asked why thousands of fans ran onto the pitch after the match ended, he said that most had done so because "they found the western gates where they were seated were open and not secured as usual." He said that he always attended matches between Al-Ahli and Al-Masri, and had never yet seen so little security. "For the first time, the gates of the stadium remained open until the end of the first half. Usually, they are closed two hours before the match, meaning that thousands of people were able to come in without being frisked as usual."
He recalled how last year the atmosphere before the Zamalek and Al-Masri match was even more tense, but no one died. As for the Al-Masri Ultras, he claimed that most of them had left after the match ended, and that the only Al-Masri fan who had gone to the office of the state prosecutor was Khaled Seddik, head of the fan group, in an attempt to clear the names of those who had been wrongfully accused. Unlike many, he believes that the Port Said Ultras are innocent of the dreadful crimes carried out at the match.
A preliminary report on the tragedy issued by the People's Assembly has blamed the security forces, the Al-Masri fans and the stadium officials for what happened. Until the truth emerges, Port Said remains a gloomy place, a city washed with sadness, its streets empty and its people bewildered and distraught. At night, army vehicles patrol the city, driving slowly as if fearing trouble at the next turn. The security forces have also warned of a possible attack on the offices of the Suez Canal Company, a historic building dating back to 1869.
Having survived three wars in 1956, 1967 and 1973, Port Said today has been brought to tears by a football game.